Concerns electric cars could be more polluting than fossil fuels in key markets

December 19, 2016

Experts are currently clashing over whether electric cars are actually more environmentally damaging than internal combustion engine cars once the impact of manufacturing and battery production and recycling are taken into account. 

The accusation is levelled at areas where a high proportion of electricity is still generated from coal, such as large parts of the US, China, Poland and even Germany.  

In California and particularly the electric car heartland of Silicon Valley, 60% of electricity still came from fossil fuels in 2015.  

Referring to Tesla owners’ claims their cars are emissions-free, professor of economics and public policy at the University of California, San Diego, Joshua Graff Zivin said to The Guardian: I couldn’t bear to hear them say the words ‘zero emissions vehicle’ one more time.’  

How you incentivise them to charge could really matter, Zivin says about electric vehicle owners, to ensure they charge them in green ways. Utilities haven’t thought through it.  

Zivin also pointed out that how polluting the electricity is varies by time of day. 

Other economic factors can also mean that the use of electricity is not the greenest way to fuel cars. Zivin said: ‘The cheapest power is not the greenest power.’  

In California, the cheapest electricity is produced at night, from natural gas, hydroelectric dams and nuclear energy. This is when most people charge their electric cars. However, green solar energy only contributes to the grid during the day when the sun is shining, so electric cars charging at night are using the more polluting electricity in the daily cycle. Storing any significant amount of ‘green’ solar energy for use at night is not currently technically possible.  

The most polluting electricity comes from coal, which generated 75.4% of electricity in China in 2013 according to the World Bank, 39.9% in the US, 85.2% in Poland and 46.8% in Germany. Germany, despite its Energiewende (energy change) push to renewables, still uses lignite, the most dirty form of coal, after campaigners forced it to close its nuclear reactors in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.  

The adoption of electric vehicles is unlikely to be halted worldwide due to electricity source concerns, since the benefits of using electric cars to improve local air quality in cities are immense. This is despite much of this pollution in reality only being moved to where the electricity generation takes place. For example, the Chinese government has repeatedly announced its commitment to develop electric vehicles in part to alleviate air pollution concerns in smog-plagued cities such as Beijing.  

In Europe, major cities including London, Paris, Madrid and Athens all have plans to ban diesel vehicles from their central areas, with pressure groups such as the UK’s Doctors Against Diesel, driving the debate.  

In October, Germany passed a largely symbolic resolution banning combustion engines in cars by 2030. Ultimately, the moved is focused more on spurring action in the European Union rather than enforcing a blanket ban by that date. Nevertheless, the Netherlands and Norway are discussing bans, and 20% of new car sales in Norway are already electric.  

However, professor of business administration and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley Severin Borenstein told The Guardian: ‘If the whole world started going to electric vehicles, and the demand for gasoline substantially dropped, the price of oil would plummet.’ Borenstein says if oil demand drops by 10%-20%, the price would almost certainly collapse to $20 per barrel or lower, or $1 per gallon of gasoline before taxes. He added: That would make it much less economic to use electric vehicles.’  

A further complication is the material used in the lithium batteries of electric cars. Although they are not particularly toxic, unlike lead or nickel-based batteries, they can prove difficult to recycle. They also contain rare elements like cobalt; mining of cobalt has caused serious environmental and ethical issues in source countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo. Improvements in battery technology to become less dependent on such elements is a long way off.  

As such, as ACEA notes, joined-up thinking is needed on car emission reduction strategies to ensure that the desired environmental effects are achieved.

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